JRPGs are caught in a perpetual tug-of-war between an irrational mainstream stigma and a dedicated fanbase that’s perhaps too attached to tradition. You could ask five different gamers for their opinion of a particular JRPG and get six different answers. So I went in to Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology with totally middle-of-the-road expectations, despite the generally positive reception to its original 2011 DS release. At first it seemed to be meeting those expectations exactly, with a straightforward battle system, passable script, and unexpected Chrono Trigger influences. But as the game’s full breadth began to unfold, it felt less like a Chrono Trigger imitator and more like a successor, which may just be the highest compliment available to the genre.
Perhaps that label applies simply because there are no other contenders for it. The universe itself seems to have declared Chrono Trigger a once-in-a-lifetime achievement – its “dream team” production squad never convened again, every fan project is inevitably quashed, and Yasunori Mitsuda nearly worked himself to death to bring us its soundtrack. The only official attempt at a sequel was an impossibly ambitious title torn between two eras of JRPG storytelling. With that in mind, the parallels presented by Radiant Historia are almost eerie. It’s not just a time travel-based JRPG with an excellent soundtrack, plot-relevant sidequests, and a battle system focused on enemy positioning. It’s also the product of an unrepeated collaboration with a uniquely confident idealism. And now it even has a re-release touting some contentious changes and (for all intents and purposes) an admission that the IP will never be touched again.
The largest contributor to Radiant Historia’s quality is that its combat improves significantly and swiftly. The crux of the design is that certain attacks will knock enemies around their 3×3 grid, ideally so that they overlap while receiving damage. Crowd control like this almost entirely replaces area-of-effect attacks, which is a refreshing paradigm shift, but it doesn’t stop there. Enemies can conjure zones that provide stat boosts on specific grid spaces, while one character specializes in turning those spaces into proximity traps. Additionally, both player and enemy turn order can be freely swapped, allowing for the formation of combos that award bonus damage, experience, and money at the cost of leaving combatants vulnerable. Restricting player actions to unbroken chains creates some weird situations – like having to wait a turn to expend the MP you just recovered – but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly flexible and entertaining system.
Money and places to fully heal are unusually sparse for most of the game, to its benefit; the increased need to minimize damage makes every combat encounter an involved affair. However, the game is only as difficult and repetitive as you want it to be. This was already the case in the original release thanks to its largely avoidable enemies, but Perfect Chronology makes outrunning them even more reliable and adds distinct difficulty settings for good measure. Also new to this version are “Support Attacks,” which answer the age-old question of what the remaining characters are doing while the three chosen ones are in battle, as well as a few minor interface improvements. Honestly, the only real gameplay faults here are the reliance on palette swaps for mid- and late-game opponents and the somewhat imprecise overworld controls.
The game’s other centerpiece is its inventive and engaging approach to time travel. The setting is a continent being steadily overtaken by an inexplicably expanding desert, sparking a territory war between two highly corrupt nations. Caught in the middle is Stocke, a skilled agent who is mysteriously gifted the White Chronicle – a book that allows him to jump between “nodes” in time – and told that this power can stop the crisis. Soon afterwards, the timeline is split in two by one of his choices, and he must use the White Chronicle to procure items and skills in each timeline in order to resolve events in the other. Alternating between two increasingly diverging realities does help to keep the adventure fresh, but it’s the implicit and ancillary aspects that make the mechanic shine.
For starters, Stocke’s apparent prowess with…everything, which could have made him insufferable, is instead perfectly excused by his ability to create self-induced Groundhog Day loops for potentially infinite off-screen training. This is also one of the only games in existence to justify the presence of an unambiguous best ending. Time travel comes into play in nearly every sidequest as well. Obviously, such a mechanic should engender a lot of repetition, but the developers foresaw and accounted for this. All nodes with sidequest potential are carefully segregated from those containing combat, and all text can be fast-forwarded or just skipped entirely. Not only does this alleviate the inevitable redundant dialogue that arises when translating from Japanese, but it’s astonishing how the ability to warp from moment to moment can turn a banal fetch quest into a satisfying bit of narrative.
The plot itself is enjoyable but not as inspired. While not exactly lighthearted, it never meanders into the kind of philosophy that JRPGs often do, for better or worse. Its strengths lie in its immensely likable cast of playable characters and its ability to continually dangle answers out of reach while still remembering to actually provide them eventually. Its largest weakness is that the mechanics of its brand of time travel are fairly contrived; many of Stocke’s actions consist of countering distortions in fate caused by another artifact called the Black Chronicle, reverting them to the “true history” which is conveniently the best outcome for most of the good guys. Additionally, one late-game twist is so blatantly foreshadowed it may as well not be a twist, and there’s some major ludonarrative dissonance when supporting characters retain their current equipment regardless of timeline position.
Perfect Chronology adds an additional segmented scenario in which an enigmatic character named Nemesia recruits Stocke to recover a collection of small artifacts having similar effects as the Black Chronicle across a variety of alternate histories. These are initially presented as self-contained episodes, which works fine given the nature of the premise, but they’re still eventually tied into the main story in a satisfying way. However, their inclusion is destined to be divisive for a variety of reasons. Nemesia’s gimmick of peppering her dialogue with elementary school terminology can be kind of annoying, but more importantly, the altered conclusion enabled by her presence is so conclusive that it all but shuts the door on any possible sequels. Personally, I was also rather disappointed that the alternate histories only contain one permutation each, rather than the more outlandish possibilities such a setup allows for.
This version’s least important gameplay addition is the Vault of Time, a glorified grinding space disguised as a bonus dungeon. It seems a worthwhile inclusion at first, allowing players to train some infamously underleveled characters while collecting unique equipment and learning Support Attacks. However, the dungeon itself is a physical and narrative dead end, and the creatures within can all be encountered through normal play, rendering it nearly pointless. It’s especially noticeable because the design everywhere else is very good at avoiding wasted space, with the various bad endings that arise due to player choices being the only possible exception. Their frequency and ease of creation makes them kind of darkly humorous, but the fact that they’re only abruptly summarized rather than used as plot devices the way the two primary timelines are is definitely a missed opportunity.
Perfect Chronology also makes some changes to Radiant Historia’s aesthetics. Visually, the character portraits have had many of their more distinctive traits removed – a strange decision, but not one that has a severe impact. On the positive side, while the sprite/polygon mix isn’t the best look, it’s been cleaned up quite nicely for the 3DS. As for audio, major characters now have their lines voiced, and enemies are now much noisier. Both are double-edged swords: most of the performances are solid, but alternating between full voice acting and characters who only speak single words representative of their dialogue feels unusual. Meanwhile, though the battles sound less empty than before, the repeated sound effects become annoying quickly. The music features some additional tracks but is otherwise unchanged from its superb original form, which is let down only by its reuse of songs for multiple areas.
The ultimate question looming over a rerelease like Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology is whether it’s worth buying for a fan of the original version. Based solely on a ratio of new to old content, the answer is probably no, as it’s closer to a special edition than a full remake. But as this looks to be the swan song for the Radiant Historia brand, dedicated fans may want to look into it just to witness the finale. Newcomers should absolutely check it out, as it’s a well-plotted, exciting experience in nearly all aspects, which is a statement I would give with confidence even to those who dislike JRPGs – the ultimate commonality between this and a certain other title from 1995.
This review is based on the 3DS version of the game, which we were provided with by Atlus USA.
The updates and alterations to Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology are inconsistently worthwhile, but the game as a whole is as memorable and elegantly designed as ever.